Portraits From A Pandemic: 'Feeling Hollow' In A Retirement Home What's it like to live on "lockdown" in a retirement home, as the coronavirus sweeps through the region? We take you inside the lives of ordinary Washingtonians living through this historic moment.
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Portraits From A Pandemic: 'Feeling Hollow' In A Retirement Home

Portraits From A Pandemic: 'Feeling Hollow' In A Retirement Home

Margaret Sullivan looks out the windows of Goodwin House in Falls Church, Va. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

In our first conversation by phone, Margaret Sullivan told me maybe she wasn't a good fit for my reporting project, on people whose lives have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic. After all, she had a comfortable life and was being well taken care of in a retirement home in Falls Church. "Living in a bubble," she said.

But a few minutes later, she told me this: "My brother died about two weeks ago of the virus."

He was her younger brother, and lived a few states away.

"I'm the old oldest and he's the youngest. And that's outside the order of things."

My experience during the pandemic has been long days juggling kids and work. Worrying about money. Trying to schedule grocery deliveries.

But for Margaret, the virus brings with it thoughts of mortality.

Margaret is 85 and lives at Goodwin House in Bailey's Crossroads. She's been documenting all the ways the coronavirus pandemic has shut down life around her.

The first glimpse of things to come was on Feb. 28.

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"Overnight, the Purell bottles stationed everywhere grew signs, 'Don't take me home. I'm for everyone.'"

A few days later, salt and pepper shakers disappeared from dining rooms, "in an abundance of caution."

On March 12, the "lockdown" as she calls it, began.

Signs of the times: a staff member has her temperature taken upon arrival in the building on March 16. Courtesy of/Margaret Sullivan hide caption

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Courtesy of/Margaret Sullivan

"A strange hush fell," she wrote in an essay she shared with me. Residents were not to leave, and no outsiders could come in — which meant, no more visits from her daughter, who lives five miles away.

"We are being extraordinarily well taken care of, but we are also being carefully harbored," Margaret told me on our first phone call, on April 2.

I didn't need to tell her the statistics — as many as 1 in 4 people over 85 infected with the virus die, according to early research.

"We are vulnerable," Margaret told me. "I think the youngest of us is in their late 60s. And the oldest of us — there are 500 or so of us — is 100 and something."

Margaret said she had to wrap up our call.

"Well, I have to go in a few more minutes," she explained. She and her husband had recently updated their will, fixing married names of their children. "You need to be sure that the documents that the kids would need to have are in order. And so we're going downstairs to find the notary."

Reminders about safety protocols on April 1. Courtesy of/Margaret Sullivan hide caption

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Courtesy of/Margaret Sullivan

'This Is Something I've Seen'

When I asked Margaret to describe herself, she answered this way:

"I'm a rolling stone."

She was born in China, and her father was a doctor of public health in parasitology. When the rumblings of World War II began, 6-year-old Margaret moved back to the States with her family. Later, when she was in high school, the family moved to Burma, then India, where she graduated from high school. She ended up in D.C. for college. And — she got married.

"'We' joined the Foreign Service — he was the only one who got paid," she said with a laugh. "So we've lived around the equator and raised kids around the equator."

Margaret and Dan, with their children on their front porch in Jakarta in 1969 or 1970. Left to right: kids Gay, Walter, Charley (with Kaka the pet cockatoo), and Jerry. Courtesy of/Margaret Sullivan hide caption

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Courtesy of/Margaret Sullivan

Margaret says this life, hopping from country-to-country in Asia and Africa with four kids in tow, put her in the path of a number of epidemics. In the 1970s, the family was living in Sierra Leone while the Lassa Fever was raging there. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent a team to collect blood samples of sick people — and those infected samples were stored in Margaret's refrigerator.

"Until the next plane came through and they went back to Atlanta," she said.

Then there was the time they were living in Nigeria: "All three of the kids got mumps the day I was supposed to host a big party. I mean, everybody has these stories."

A long life, much of it lived abroad, gives Margaret perspective on the current pandemic, of both perspective of time, and geography.

"There is a sense in which this is new and startling and different, and much more concerning. But there's another sense in which this is something I've seen in a different way. I don't know whether it makes me more comfortable or less comfortable."

Margaret posing in one of her homemade masks, cut from an old sock. "Several people have seen pictures of them and they've very kindly asked if they could send us real masks," she said. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

Meeting From Behind Masks

I met Margaret once in person, on April 14. It was a warm spring day, and residents were outside to hear a band playing Motown music — sitting in plastic chairs spaced far apart on the lawn, or watching from their balconies.

But "in person" felt like the wrong term for it — Margaret and I were 15 or 20 feet apart, and half of my face was covered with a mask.

"I'll look forward to seeing the other half of your face," Margaret said when I introduced myself from afar. She wore a colorful purple and blue mask — her own DIY creation made out of an old sock.

Of course I took a selfie of us. Margaret is in the chair, with white pants and mask. Jacob Fenston/WAMU hide caption

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Jacob Fenston/WAMU

Margaret mused on the strangeness of the enforced physical distance. "The ways of finding linkage and keeping close to each other that we are used to having as physical are now on the phone, or if we're good with computers, on Zoom," she said.

Nowadays, she's actually spending more time talking to far-flung kids and grandkids. "In some ways we're more cut off. And in some ways, because they and we are so isolated, we are more linked. It's an odd thing."

'Life Turned On Its Head'

Margaret is a writer, and she's penned books about her globe-trotting life. Now, she's writing about — and recording — her life under lockdown. "Life sort of turned on its head here late Wednesday afternoon," begins a recording she sent me from April 11. A letter had arrived, outlining new social distancing restrictions.

Weeks earlier, the dining rooms at Goodwin House had converted to takeaway service only, with residents waiting six feet apart to pick up food. Now, the letter said, meals would be delivered and left outside each resident's door.

Left: Dan, with a takeaway meal on April 6. Right, the masked couple inspecting menus on April 21; meals must be ordered two days in advance, and are now delivered to each resident, to limit contact. Courtesy of/Margaret Sullivan hide caption

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Courtesy of/Margaret Sullivan

In the recording, there's a knock.

"And there comes my lunch. Just a minute," Margaret says, putting down the recorder with a clunk. In the background I can hear as she catches up with the staff member who delivered the meal. "Well, it's more fun when we can go downstairs and pick it up and chat with you."

In another recording, she's interrupted by her husband, Dan.

"You came back to get your mask? OK. Here it is," she says, as he putters in the background. "Dan, it needs to go over your nose."

Portraits through wine glasses. Left, Dan on April 12. On the right, Margaret takes a selfie using the same technique, on April 14. Courtesy of/Margaret Sullivan hide caption

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Courtesy of/Margaret Sullivan

Margaret and Dan have been married for 65 years. He's 91, and has mid-stage Alzheimer's. As the patterns of daily life change during the pandemic, Dan's confusion increases. There are many more conversations about where everyday objects are than there were just a few weeks ago.

"He's good about picking up and taking things to the sink," says Margaret. "I may have to remind him that the sink is where the sink is."

'There's A Bog And I'm Caught In It'

Margaret jokes about the situation, and she keeps busy — scheduling Zoom calls with her kids and grandkids. But lately, there's a sense of gravity settling in.

"I find myself very seriously feeling hollow. It just sort of — there's a bog and I'm caught in it," she says in a recording from April 18.

There's also the day — April 8 — when she ends her recording this way:

"Today's my brother's birthday, and he isn't here for me to call. And so my heart breaks a bit on that too."

She wasn't able to be with her brother when he died. She has no idea if or when the family will be able to get together to cry, and tell stories about him.

"Zooming on Sunday night with number one son, Jerry (who is a professor of anthropology at Collin Collage in Texas) and his wife Phillipa who live in McKenney, Texas," writes Margaret. "We are talking with each of our four kids (adult children) this way. And having drinks with friends sometimes." Courtesy of/Margaret Sullivan hide caption

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Courtesy of/Margaret Sullivan

She reads the news each morning — the papers are being delivered by a cadre of volunteers in the building — and struggles to find the right word, as nursing homes around the country are overtaken by deaths from COVID-19.

"I won't say that life is terrifying. I haven't quite found the right word for what it is. But it certainly is concerning."

In the recordings, she talks about how she and Dan updated their will. Now, they're working on another set of papers — a living will.

"I had never thought that I would want to write down 'Do not ventilate.' There are other people who need them more, and I have had a good life. And so I think that's what we'll do."

Margaret tells me one of the hardest parts right now is not knowing how long all of this will go on.

"Dan's father was in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during the war for a while. He came home and he said the next time anybody put him in jail, he wanted to know what the sentence was and how long he'd be there. That resonates with me."

These days, Margaret is finding comfort in the ordinary — like watching spring unfold from her 11th story window.

"Last night, for instance, the sunset. It's been moving north. And I can finally actually see the sun as it sinks out my window, which means that the world is still turning on its axis. And that hasn't changed."

Music featured in this story: "The Collector" and "Something Old" by Broke For Free, and "March" by Podington Bear.

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